In my Day 25 post (posted earlier today, because I ran out of yesterday before I ran out of things to do!), I mentioned that my kids explored with zucchinis and condoms. I’ve written about that in more detail here.*
The experimentation had a purpose – to empower my children, and to demystify the processes of sex and birth control. I wanted them to have a greater familiarity with condoms and how they work; how to apply them, what they smelled like. They figured out that they could break by using them as water balloons. All of this was interspersed with talk of pre-seminal fluid, spermicides, and things that can compromise the structural integrity of latex. It was an exploration, and a chance to learn.
I don’t remember anything like that in my own high school sexual education. We were told to use condoms, if we were going to be foolish enough to forgo abstinence (which, by that point, most of the class long since had). But there was not an actual condom in sight, and nothing other than a very brief lecture, without demonstration, on how to use them.
That was somewhat indicative of the way sex education was handled in my public school. There was the presentation on menstruation when I was in sixth grade – all of us girls gathered together into the gym, our mothers in chairs in the back of the room, where we knew they were there, but couldn’t see them without turning, and risking a sharp word from one of the female teachers in attendance.
That experience was so strange and uncomfortable that I really don’t remember what the movie was like. I do know that, at the end of the movie, we were all given a copy of a little booklet called Growing Up and Liking It -a title that always sounded a little like a cross between a threat and a command to me. In it, three fictional girls, one of whom had moved away from her two best friends, wrote a series of highly contrived letters – all about getting their periods, or waiting for them. The girl who had moved away was a know-it-all, and seemed to forever be lecturing her friends on the whys and wherefores of menstruation.
The booklet was produced by a feminine hygiene company, and the last page was an order form for a menstrual starter kit. My mother duly ordered this sampling of products for me, and it arrived in a long, flat brown box, and then lived under my bed for the next three years, because I didn’t get my period until I was 14.
An interesting aspect of the sex education that I received in school is that it was of very little practical use when I actually started having sex. I knew, in theory, how to apply a condom, but I knew very little about how to really do it. I wasn’t even always sure my partner was using one, and I’d been given no pointers on how to be assertive about it. I could scarcely look at an erect penis, and I certainly couldn’t talk about sexual matters. That took me another few years, and experience. For the most part, those first few years, I went along with what the man in question wanted; I had little input of my own, and far less confidence.
What seems to me to have been lacking is empowerment. Instead, we were fed someone else’s pre-programmed agenda. The focus was strictly on biology, with an overlay of morality that strongly reflected the “Just Say No” eighties. Sexual pleasure wasn’t even part of the equation. Our sexuality was something to be manipulated and controlled. Our minds were there to be molded, shaped in accordance with that agenda.
We weren’t treated as nearly-adult people with the right to choose for ourselves, and who possessed the capacity to weigh options and consider consequences. What we needed was the information without the overlay, and the assurance that we could choose for ourselves, and choose well. There was nothing at all about sexual harassment in the schools – something more recent studies suggest is rampant in high schools, and which I personally experienced. The combination of forbidden excitement (I was a very sheltered virgin) and shame (I must have done something to encourage the ‘nice boy’ in question) kept me from telling an adult what was happening.
That’s what I hope to give to my own children – the empowerment of knowledge and the confidence to use it as a tool in their own lives, for their own purposes. I want them to value themselves enough to claim the right to their own bodies and their own sexuality, to be able to refuse when they aren’t interested, stand up for themselves if someone tries something that they don’t want to participate in, to know what pleases them, and to be clear and confident about it.
I want them to be free of the underlying shame that ran through my own sex education and sexual awakening, because shame can be a crippling muzzle to a healthy sex life.
Zucchinis and condoms were just one small but potent part of that.